Nipping in the bud
By Daniel M. Ryan
"Obsta principiis, nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people." This quote, from John Adams, is enough to get him nominated as America's Greatest Defense Lawyer. The point he made – that the only way to preserve liberty is to root out any potential tyranny, before it becomes actualized – covers a lot of gray zone. This maxim empowers people to scotch out anything that looks like tyranny. The next sentence from his pen all-but implies it: "When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards." Clearly, this means, hop to it when a threat is perceived. Waiting to see if a policy, measure or whatnot will prove to be tyrannical is tantamount to waiting for the leash to be put around your neck as proof you'll be leashed. Once the proof arrives, it's too late; you're now the doggie.
This argument covers a lot of political rambunctiousness, a lot of hobby-horse riding and even actions that could be dismissed as crankish. Imagine John Adams defending, say, Orly Taitz in an appeal of the $20,000 fine she got from Judge Land. He would argue that she was justified in holding President Obama to the word of the Constitution, as failing to do so makes it inevitable that a Julius Caesar will cross the American Rubicon [act extra-Constitutionally: not crossing the Rubicon until invited by the Senate amounted to an unwritten Constitutional restraint on generals – a kind of civilian control of the military] and replace representative government with usurpation. It would only be a matter of time, once the principle was breached. So he would argue, concluding that there be no such thing as unreasonableness in the defense of Liberty and of the Constitution; her misconduct regarding insults and whatnot would be explained as a regrettable excess of zeal for a cause most celestial, a cause superior to all.
Anyone mystified at what appears to be reaching-for-it charges can understand once the chargers are seen as followers in John Adams' wake. The loose use of the word 'Nazi'; the claim that President Obama is a radical Marxist; the claim that the bailouts of the financial sector and of two auto companies are part of a plan to take over all of American industry; the same claim regarding ObamaCare; the claim that the public school system is a softener for tyranny; all such claims are covered well by the spirit of John Adams. So were the left-wing claims made against President George W. Bush and his Administration. Anyone who thinks that the above claims are beyond the pale should take a walk down Bushemory Lane. Remember "Bushitler"? The claim that the WMDs in Iraq were nonexistent instead of being hidden in Syria? The still-extant claims that 9/11 was an "inside job?" The spirit of John Adams covers them too.
Washington insiders are far from unique in having it hard. As long as there is government and governed, as long as there's a division between rulers and ruled, such accusations will always issue from the ranks of the ruled. When you have the power to initiate coercion, particularly against the legally disarmed, suspiciousness about your motives will always arise. Being on the other end of the damage will do that to a person in cases of doubt or unreasonableness. If this point is not known, then it would be easy to conclude that (say) the anti-nuclear-weapons crew came out of an asylum for hysterical paranoiacs. Knowledge of the damage nuclear weapons can do restrains us from laughing at them as "Doomsday-Every-Day Cranks" (or merely checking their track record.) The spirit of John Adams, along with our milito-political common sense, works for them too.
In fact, a case can be made that wild accusations are better for the rulers than plausible ones. After an initial brazing, it becomes easy for anyone to tune out the implausible except for a soul who's too sensitive for politics. (Such souls tend to become mother hens.) On the other hand, a plausible accusation does jolt. Thus, there's rough common sense in the rule of thumb, "if they yelp, or come after you, you're on to them." Even if this maxim's hard on, and even unjust towards, the thin-skinned.
An example of the spirit of John Adams comes from a book by historian Paul Johnson. He says, through quoting an on-the scene authority, that the chief victims of a certain political leader were the commonfolk with property. They "were taxed arbitrarily according to their ability to pay, rather than by any other criterion; the system, [this expert] said, was essentially the same as that run by the Pharaohs… 'The more readily the peasant pays, the more he is made to pay.'"
This potentate was Muhammed Ali, who ruled Egypt as a despot in the early 19th century. [The quote comes from Birth of the Modern, p. 685, pb.] Someone bound by the rules of logic would say that anyone comparing Muhammed Ali to Franklin D. Roosevelt is committing the fallacy of the undistributed middle. "Muhammed Ali believes in 'ability to pay'; so does Roosevelt; hence, Roosevelt is a Muhammed Ali."
Anyone that logic-bound would be missing the point, because (s)he would be missing a hidden inference. Arguments of this sort use history and a process of abstraction, like this one: "Anyone who believes the same ability-to-pay taxation principle as Mohammed Ali will act as despotic as he did, if unrestrained by countervailing power. Consequently, Roosevelt [to the extent that he was unrestrained by countervailing powers] was a Muhammed Ali [in this aspect]." The basic tool of political abstraction in American thought is, "what would this politician be like if no-one else restrained him?" The answer, thanks to that all-American suspiciousness towards power, is typically some kind of tyrant.
Once this thought process is understood, a lot of American political rhetoric becomes fairly easy to understand. Mistakes are made, of course, and some of the comparisons can get pretty wild. As is usual in ordinary politics, common sense is the final arbiter.
Daniel M. Ryan dances with the Grim Reaper.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!